Murphy’s Love: Advice on Intimacy and Relationships

Burned Out From Caring for Spouse’s Anxiety

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Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read.
Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read.

Dear Stacy,

I graduated from a D.C. university last yI have been married for 15 years. We met right after we both finished grad school and have had a challenging marriage from the start due to her unrelenting anxiety. She suffers from low self-esteem and sometimes even panic attacks. At this stage in our relationship I know what to expect and what to do when she gets worked up, but I am tired of it all. She sees a therapist irregularly, never stays on a medication protocol when offered by her doctor (due to the “side effects”) and just seems complacent about things ever getting any better.

She apologizes after each episode and promises to try to do better, but that never works. I am finding myself so frustrated and angry with her lack of interest in how these episodes impact me that I am fantasizing about leaving. I keep envisioning myself in my own house, in a new city, without the burden of her fragile state. I do love her, I would have left long ago if I didn’t, but I am not interested in helping her anymore. What should I do?

— No More Status Quo

Dear Status Quo:

I feel for you. It is so difficult to watch a loved one struggle with mental health issues and not find relief. You are describing the life of a caregiver: you feel responsible for her well-being, you know what to expect and how to work with her symptoms — and you are burned out. That makes perfect sense. For many burned-out caregivers, the only option seems to be leaving the situation entirely, but your emotional connection to Wife is keeping you tethered. That’s a tough place to be — tethered to a situation that makes you resentful and checked out. Sometimes drifting off into fantasy is the only way we can survive such circumstances, but it is starving your relationship with Wife.

Your caregiver relationship with Wife is different from that with a child or an aging parent, however. In those situations you have a hierarchical responsibility to the other person. With a spouse or partner, things are more complicated. You and Wife are each responsible for the emotional care of each another. She is responsible for you. You are responsible for her.

It feels like it might be time to work on restructuring that bond, meaning you don’t send her off for irregular therapy and medication management all by herself. Instead, you both make a deal to focus on your relationship first and foremost — in therapy, over dinner, in the car and on the weekends. The answer is not going to be that she gets cured of her anxiety and everything is better. No, the answer is going to be that the two of you create a system at home that supports you both.

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor in Georgetown. Visit her on the web at stacymurphylpc.com. This column is meant for entertainment only and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to stacy@stacymurphylpc.com.

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